Pictures by Sarah Dunn; words by Farhan Shah; grooming by Garen Tolkin for exclusive artists using V76 by Vaughn & Bare Escentuals, assisted by Nick Tooman, Jonathan Folds, Jimmy Fikes & Justin Schaefers.
It’s five minutes to eight in the morning and I’m sitting in the conference room at the office, waiting for the phone to ring. Just the night before, I had binged on dozens of YouTube clips until my eyebags had their own eyebags. But it was all for work, of course. I was getting up to speed on Daniel Wu’s latest project, a martial arts television series called Into the Badlands. It’s visceral, bloody and very much in your face, so I don’t imagine it’s going to be aired in (currently on AXN) without first getting its guts and heart ripped out by our country’s rather zealous censorship board, but it makes for interesting viewing.
The phone rings exactly at 8am. Surprising punctuality from a star, I muse while picking it up. Daniel Wu is on the other end of the line. He’s back home in Oakland, residence of the Golden State Warriors basketball team of which Wu is a massive fan. We exchange pleasantries. He seems fresh, even happy to be talking to me. I look at my list of questions and scratch out the one about Steph Curry and gang failing spectacularly at the 2016 NBA Finals. I couldn’t bear to do it to Wu.
“Why are you back home?” I ask instead.
“Oh, just in the middle of doing all the press interviews for Into the Badlands. I’m heading off in about a week to finish the filming of Tomb Raider. We have about a month more of filming to go for that.”
Wu is experiencing an acting Renaissance of sorts in Hollywood. Besides Tomb Raider, which is expected to be out in 2018, Wu also has a small but critical role in Geostorm, playing a scientist who discovers the reason why the satellites are destroying Earth. “That film is interesting because I’m playing a character that is totally different from anything that most people know me for.”
“I am a nerdy guy, not the one kicking ass,” Wu laughs.
THE MOST HARDWORKING MAN IN HOLLYWOOD
“Kicking ass” is what Wu has been doing for close to two decades. He’s starred in over 60 films, two television series and multiple commercials. That’s a lot of work. But he admits that, as he grows older, the way he selects projects has changed as well.
“In the past I used to be more ambitious about wanting to choose award-winning roles. But I slowly realised that as an actor, you’re very passive to the whole process. You cannot control what happens in the end. A lot of times, you put a lot of hopes and dreams into one project and it doesn’t turn out the way you think it would. It’s disheartening,” the 43-year-old shares.
Now, the American-Chinese actor chooses to fit the filming schedule around his family’s needs. The project must be extremely compelling for him to want to do it. For Tomb Raider, it was because he wanted to work alongside Alicia Vikander. “I fell in love with her in Ex Machina. I thought she was great and I was telling myself that I really want to work with this girl.”
Into the Badlands was another kind of opportunity. Wu saw a chance to fill a void on the small screen. He wanted to translate the big-budget fighting sequences you typically saw in cinemas into the medium of television. There are two reasons why no one has done it. One was the money. Secondly, the tight filming schedule typical of a television series meant that fight choreography had to be short and snappy.
Wu’s solution was simple and solved both problems―bring in his own team from Hong Kong, who is used to working on a smaller budget and on a short timeline.
The show’s first season was a great hit. Viewers loved the action. What Wu didn’t anticipate were the huge cultural waves the show made. There was the fact that an Asian male, Wu himself, was the lead. More importantly, Wu had a legitimate romantic interest. And even made out with her.
THE RISE OF THE ASIAN MALE
It is startlingly rare for an Asian character to be seen romancing another character in the American entertainment universe. The New York Times op-ed, funnyman Aziz Ansari could only come up with two instances that an Asian man kissed someone in television and film―Steven Yuen in The Walking Dead and Daniel Dae Kim in Lost.
“For many years, the Asian male has been emasculated in American culture. Roles like mine help to change that. When the show came out, we had support from all over America―black Americans, Asian Americans, even Hispanic Americans. I was proud of it, especially since the last time you saw an Asian man and a black woman on television together was in Romeo Must Die with Jet Li and the late Aaliyah. But they only hugged in the end, and that was it,” says Wu, laughing.
“Daniel Dae Kim once told me the true test of whether Asians have made it in Hollywood is when an Asian is the lead actor in a successful rom-com,” I put forward. The reasoning behind this is simple. If the film is financially successful, it means that the audience is comfortable and willing to pay to watch an Asian protagonist win the heart of his female co-star.
“Absolutely,” Wu agrees. I can practically see him nodding his head somewhere in Oakland. “It’s a role most people don’t think of for an Asian male simply because it’s not in the American psyche. As the audience, we must create that demand because honestly, Hollywood just goes where the money is. And right now, the Asian American audience is very vocal.”
“Truthfully, they might be a bit too vocal, a little over the top,” he says, half-jokingly. “I think cultural appropriation is a bullsh*t thing to call out because it’s like saying that only Asians can do martial arts or only black people can play basketball and rap.”
Wu proposes that diversity in entertainment is inevitable as the world becomes more globalised, and it makes sense. The older head honchos are handing over the reins to a younger generation who grew up in more diverse environments. These are people who have travelled, interacted with different people and realised that the world isn’t just shades of white.
ACTOR, ARCHITECT, ASIAN DAD
Wu and I have been chatting for close to 30 minutes now, talking at length about Hollywood and its foibles, his preference for the Hong Kong film industry and the reasons behind it, his disdain for generic superhero films, and even his love for design.
For the record, Wu studied architecture for five years―he graduated in the top 10% of his class―before becoming a thespian. He still loves the world of design and was devastated when Zaha Hadid passed away. But he remains private about his creative side for one reason: Kanye West.
“I could be a multi-hyphenate but I don’t want to because people have associated that with Kanye West. He’s ruined it for everybody,” Wu says, laughing boisterously. “Sure, he does some cool things design-wise but he’s not a genius. He’s no Marc Newson.” A beat.
“Or even Marc Jacobs.” Chuckles.
But what I really want to know about is how he is like with his family behind closed doors. We generally put celebrities like Wu on pedestals and hold them to a higher standard, as though they are impervious to any of life’s curveballs.
Wu, I find, is not much unlike you and I. He has his insecurities. He peppers his speech with curse words. He is trying hard to cut sugar out of his diet but loves iced lemon tea too much. He hates plain water. He works out four days a week. And he wants to be the best possible father he can be to his four-year-old daughter, Raven.
“I’m beginning to be like my own father. The stuff I hated hearing from my dad, I’m now saying to Raven,” Wu says. “There are many aspects of my upbringing that made me who I am today so I am trying to transfer that to my daughter. You should be physically and mentally present. I don’t want to be that dad at the playground looking at crap on his phone while his daughter is playing. I see those fathers all the time.”
Wu tells me about an episode in Malaysia. He was at the mall with Raven and his wife Lisa S when he saw a family of four―mother, father and two kids―at a restaurant. The dishes were on the table. But only the father was eating. The remaining three were on their phones, “God knows doing what”. There was no conversation, only the swish of thumbs on digital keypads and the occasional clanking of the father’s fork against his plate.
He nudged Lisa and pointed at the family. “I told her, ‘We will never end up like that family.’ We make a conscious effort to engage and be with each other.”
That includes limiting the amount of screen time Raven is exposed to. Wu only occasionally takes the iPad out of cold storage for Raven on long-haul flights or as a reward. “I think the iPad is an easy way out. The problem is that parenting now seems to be about shoving something in front of a child’s face to entertain them or keep them busy. Kids should be playing outside to foster their creative minds instead of staying indoors and staring at a screen all the time.”
THE FIRST CHINESE AMERICAN PRESIDENT
And then we veer off on another tangent, this time about Wu’s mother. I suppose that’s how a creative mind works, in zigs and zags, with no purpose in sight, merely the pleasure the journey afforded.
Apparently, the late Madam Wu was slightly sad that Raven was born in Hong Kong instead of the US. “She thought that meant Raven couldn’t be the president of the United States until she found out that that you’re still an American citizen even if you were born overseas as long as you have an American parent.”
It was a long-running joke that started with Wu, the first member of the clan to be born on American soil. His mum used to tell him that he could be the first Chinese president of the United States and for the first decade of his life, he thought he could.
Now, he would never wish the crown upon his daughter’s head. “Look at Barack Obama. Do you remember how he looked like before he became the most powerful man on Earth? His whole head is grey now. Nobody in that position ever has a good time,” Wu laughs.
It’s hard to imagine but Obama is only a decade older than Wu. Perhaps it’s the Asian genes or perhaps it’s his disdain for taking on the presidential role, but Wu looks no different than when he first started out in 1998 in the film Bishonen after being casted on the strength of a clothing advertisement.
Sure, the eyes have gained the thousand-yard stare one acquires from experience and the hairline might have crept up a little higher but those dreamy eyes and strong jawline from his youth are still there.
And the hair remains as black as ever.
Get a copy of August Man Malaysia, May 2017 for the complete spread.